Unified Government Does Not Absolve Hill of Oversight Role

Posted January 27, 2004 at 3:11pm

Lord knows I have had my problems with the 108th Congress, the most visible being the lack of institutional integrity demonstrated in the House by the three-hour Medicare prescription drug vote and the unwillingness to investigate the serious and real possibility of bribery attempts on that vote. [IMGCAP(1)]

The former process showed contempt for all the norms of conduct in the House. The latter shows a breakdown in the integrity of the ethics process, where a commendable truce in the politicization of ethics charges has gone too far.

In both cases, the dynamic represents a sharp decline in any feeling of what scholars used to call “institutional patriotism,” the ardent belief that the independent role and function of one’s institution transcended individual ideological or partisan interests. Twenty years ago, you could find tons of Members in both houses who cared about their own institution. Now, care about or identification with the institution is a waning quality. Most sadly, that is true for leaders as much as followers, and especially for those in the majority.

One good indicator of the deeper institutional failure that results from its disappearance is the near-absence of serious and sustained oversight in this Congress — oversight of problems and failures in the executive branch, from Cabinet departments to regulatory commissions. Even when there is committee oversight in these areas, there is no will on the part of the majority leadership to use the findings to promote reform or change — especially if the findings are critical of the administration.

Homeland security and intelligence are two prime examples. The first is the failure to ride herd adequately over the most massive reorganization in history that resulted in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The second is the refusal by the House and Senate to take seriously the work done by the Intelligence committees on the failures of our intelligence establishment (and the concurrent failure of other intelligence services in Britain, Israel and elsewhere) to get it right on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Let’s start with homeland security. To any student of organizational behavior, governmental or otherwise, and especially to students of mergers and reorganizations, it comes as no shock that since its inception, the Department of Homeland Security has been beset by a series of management problems, a lack of consistent focus, and a failure to sort out the various responsibilities, old and new, of all the component parts of the new department.

The department has had a near-revolving door in its top management team, major problems integrating agencies, and less-than-stellar success creating an integrated and functional information management system for the department, much less coordinating its computers with others in places like the FBI.

There is no higher calling for Congress than protecting the homeland. Nobody else can ride herd over the new department, making sure that when mad cow disease looms or the president proposes a massive immigration amnesty (I’ll call it what the president won’t) that affects 8 million illegal immigrants, that the Animal and Plant Inspection Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, both now part of the new department and tasked with their new priority of homeland security, can concurrently handle the responsibilities in the old areas for which they still have the burden.

The House, to be fair, did create a committee on homeland security and put two solid lawmakers, Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and ranking member Jim Turner (D-Texas), in charge. But the Speaker made sure that the committee has no real jurisdictional authority and loaded it with the chairmen of other panels that do have the jurisdiction to make sure that it didn’t do mischief that would encroach on their turf. Knowing its relative powerlessness, top officials at DHS have treated the committee with indifference or contempt, or a combination thereof. As for the Senate, it didn’t even bother to create a committee to deal with this crucial subject.

What about intelligence? Here the two Intelligence committees have actually done good work on the functions of the intelligence community, including a focus on the intelligence leading up to war in Iraq. The House committee has had particularly good working relationships across party lines — a rarity — and conscientious leadership from Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.). The Senate’s road has been a bit rockier, but still fits firmly in the responsible category. The work done by Harman and Goss has focused on why everybody got it wrong on WMD in Iraq. Harman in particular, has led the way on the issue, focusing with probity not just on what went wrong but on how to reform the process. This is a highly charged subject, of course, but is absolutely critical to making sure we don’t get it wrong again.

This ought to be a priority for the leaders in the House. It is not. They have joined in the efforts to curtail the work of the 9/11 Commission, also a model of bipartisan integrity, and have no interest in following up on the WMD failure, largely because it might be embarrassing to the White House.

Oversight is not and has never been a particularly glamorous or politically satisfying activity. But it is a linchpin of responsible governing. Unified party government never used to be a deterrent to tough and effective oversight, when lawmakers saw their own legislative role as transcending their partisan loyalty. No more.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.